Red Flags Flying Over Parliament Square

The tumultuous day Jeremy Corbyn was crowned Labour leader

Dispatches UK Politics Westminster
“A new kind of politics”? Jeremy Corbyn speaking in Parliament Square just hours after being elected Labour leader (Samuel Ashdown/Demotix/PA Images)

The woman standing in front of me spread her arms wide, tilted her head back and shut her eyes. She had just heard the news that Jeremy Corbyn had been elected leader of the Labour party. She let out a long yelp of joy, her voice shaking as she jumped up and down on the spot. Collecting herself, she inhaled, reached skywards and shouted at the top of her voice: “We’ve got a proper Labour party again!” before blasting a champagne cork high into the air and passing the bottle around among those who, like her, had congregated at Speakers’ Corner to listen to the results of the Labour leadership contest on a loudspeaker.

Hugs were exchanged, backs were patted, tweets were sent. “Jez we can! Jez we can!” chanted some in the crowd before someone updated the slogan: “Jez we did! Jez we did!” A bald man in a leather jacket burst into tears, his fists raised, his knuckles white.

The decision the crowd was there to celebrate — the election of the most left-wing Labour leader in history — was emphatic. Far more emphatic than most had imagined. At the start of the leadership contest, bookmakers had put Jeremy Corbyn’s chances of victory at 200-1. He would go on to win, and to do so in the first round with 59.5 per cent of the vote. He beat his rivals not only among the registered supporters many thought would skew the result towards him but among full party members and trade union members too. 

At Speakers’ Corner, though, thoughts soon turned to the future. “I can’t wait to see what the front page of the Mail is tomorrow,” said one man, nodding sagaciously. “They won’t give him a chance,” said his friend. (The next day these two would be proved right in their penetrating insight on what a conservative newspaper might make of the Labour party’s election of a far-left leader. “RED AND BURIED” read the Mail on Sunday’s headline. By way of contrast, the Morning Star, the editorial line of which is dictated by the Communist Party of Britain, was more positive: “JEREMY STORMS TO VICTORY”.

The “Tentative Victory Party for Jeremy Corbyn”, as the event I was at was titled on Facebook, coincided with a march to call on the Prime Minister to accept more refugees into Britain. This would culminate in a rally in Parliament Square where, rumour had it, the newly elected Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition would address the crowd.

The panoply of organisations that make up Britain’s far-Left were out in force. Supporters of Stop the War, of which Corbyn is a founder and national chair, were looking for new recruits at the foot of Marble Arch. Opposite, members of Counterfire, a “revolutionary socialist organisation dedicated to the overthrow of capitalism by the working class”, were competing for the attention of passers by. A young man was selling copies of the Trotskyist paper Socialist Worker. Pamphlets were thrust into the hands of the assembling crowd, petitions were waved in front of perplexed tourists and a collage of placards and flags — with messages ranging from the straightforward “Refugees welcome here” to the platitudinal “Freedom for Syria” (from whom, and by what means?) to the constructive “F— the f—ing Tories” — materialised above people’s heads as they began their walk south, towards Parliament Square.

One of the many pamphlets offering advice to Jeremy Corbyn came from an organisation called “Labour Party Marxists”. In an unsigned article titled “Extraordinary times require extraordinary measures” it told readers:

. . . have no doubt: the right will resort to unconstitutional methods in an attempt to undermine, discredit, isolate and then finally oust [Corbyn]. In this it will be aided and abetted not only by the City, the military-industrial complex and the capitalist press and media. Special branch, MI5 and their American cousins will provide information, advisers and coordination. If he is going to succeed, comrade Corbyn will have to resort to revolutionary methods.

Reading these words it was hard to believe that just 128 days separated the general election and Corbyn’s election as Labour leader. In May, it would have been inconceivable that a group called “Labour Party Marxists” would have viewed the next Labour leader as anything other than an utter sell-out, a capitalist stooge. Yet here they were, calling on the Leader of the Opposition to “resort to revolutionary methods”.

In the immediate aftermath of the election, Liz Kendall, the candidate from the Right of the party, stole a march on Labour leadership candidates with a more honest post-mortem than many of her colleagues were prepared to administer. Her message was that voters still did not trust Labour with their money, that the party did not appeal sufficiently to Middle England, that their pitch to the electorate was too negative and its message lacked the aspirational tone that had worked for the party in the recent past. This, most commentators considered, would be the tone of the contest between Kendall and her more established rivals, Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham. Corbyn, whose inclusion in the election had only been made possible with the nominations of MPs who did not want him to become leader, would be a quaint sideshow and a valve through which the Left of the party could let off some steam.

That, of course, is not what happened. (Kendall took under 5 per cent of the vote.) After Corbyn’s unlikely victory, veteran Labour MP Dame Margaret Beckett said she regarded her decision to nominate Corbyn as “probably one of the biggest political mistakes I’ve ever made”.

Jeremy Corbyn would have been at the refugee demonstration whether or not he had just been elected Labour leader. Going to demonstrations is what he does. It is what a significant portion of the British Left does and has always done. As the rally weaves its way into Parliament Square, Corbyn supporters who’d been milling about outside the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, hoping to snatch a glimpse of their hero, join the crowd. Their T-shirts and posters read, “I voted for a different kind of politics.”

Yet the most remarkable thing about Jeremy Corbyn’s triumph is that he achieved it by doing exactly what he has always done: talking about the same issues at the same kind of meetings he has spoken at all his life. That 251,000 people — just 0.5 per cent of the electorate — agree with him is not surprising. That he managed to muscle his way to the top of the Labour party is more remarkable.

To fill time while the supporters of a “new kind of politics” wait for the man of the hour, Billy Bragg takes to the rally’s makeshift stage, an open-sided lorry parked on the south side of Parliament Square. “A historic day, is it not?” says the 57-year-old songwriter and fixture of the British Left. The roar from the crowd suggests that they are as excited about Corbyn’s victory as Bragg is.

As Bragg launches into the opening lines of “The World Turned Upside Down” — “In Sixteen Forty Nine, to St George’s Hill a ragged band they called the Diggers came to show the people’s will” — fists and pacifist V-signs rise into the air. The under-thirties tap their feet and nod their heads but it is the over-fifties who seem to enjoy Bragg the most. One veteran with a blue mohican knows more or less every word. Between songs, Bragg muses on the Corbyn win: “Solidarity is not for losers any more.” He tells the crowd that because of Corbyn he will do something he has not done since the early 1990s: attend his local Labour party branch meeting. Corbyn needs our help, Bragg says: “It’s going to be a tough one, this. They’re going to throw everything at him, the press. They’re going to throw his presence here at him. His support for peace . . . his principles . . . his beliefs.” The crowd is treated to another Bragg classic, “Waiting For The Great Leap Forward”, with a special commemorative line added: “The revolution is just a Labour leadership contest away”.

Eventually Corbyn steps up to the microphone, telling the thousands there that he has never seen Parliament Square look “so full, so beautiful and so happy as on this day”. He gives the sort of speech he has always given — “Together in peace. Together in justice” — before Bragg leads the crowd, and Corbyn, in a rendition of the old Left’s favourite anthem, “The Red Flag”:

So raise the scarlet standard high,
beneath its folds we’ll live or die.
Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer,
we’ll keep the red flag flying here.